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F-35: DOD’s Next Top Gun Aircraft Needs More Time and Attention

Posted on May 14, 2020

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet is critical to national—and international—security. But its stealth technology, advanced sensors, and networking capabilities don’t come cheap: it’s the most expensive weapon program in U.S. military history.

Several partner countries have contributed funds and agreed to buy jets, while a number of other countries have signed on to purchase them through the Department of Defense’s foreign military sales.

The F-35 program has been delivering jets since 2007, but full-rate production—to meet the demand for jets—can’t start until the program is ready. We’ve been updating Congress regularly on the program’s readiness, including the cost, schedule, and other risks it faces.

We’ll look at our most recent update in today’s WatchBlog.

Can They Build It Right?

The contractor building the “airframes” (jet bodies) says it’s ready. We found that the program is on track to meet 6 of the 8 leading practices for manufacturing readiness. But the remaining 2 practices are key to preventing future quality issues that would add to the $428 billion overall cost of the program.

  • Production processes should consistently lead to a high quality product without defects or rework. The contractor is still changing some of its processes, and not always following its established processes well. In 2018, the Air Force found corrosion between the surface panels and the frame because the contractor didn’t apply primer when it attached the panels. In 2019, a mechanic found titanium fasteners in an area of the aircraft where the design calls for stronger fasteners.  
  • The product should meet its goals for reliability and maintenance time. Over 500 F-35s that are in the field now aren’t meeting their reliability goals—they’re more likely than expected to be in maintenance rather than available for operations.


Photo showing the development of the F-35.


Can They Build Enough?

There are already parts shortages and supply chain issues that make it hard to increase production. In April 2019, F-35s in the field weren’t meeting users’ requirements, largely because of trouble getting spare parts.

In July 2019, Turkey—an international partner—was suspended from the program. The program was ordered to stop placing parts orders with Turkish suppliers after March 2020, which means that they had to find new suppliers for 1,005 airframe and engine parts while also increasing production. The program found new suppliers by the end of 2019, but it may still be hard to ensure that they can meet the increased demands of full-rate production.

Is It Ready for Emerging Threats?

The F-35’s computer systems are due for an upgrade to help them address emerging threats. There has been substantial cost and schedule growth in this modernization effort. DOD now expects it to cost $12.1 billion—an increase of $1.5 billion since May 2019.

Also, the program had planned to deliver 8 new capabilities in 2019, but it has only delivered 1 so far. Delivery of the remaining 65 capabilities was delayed and is now expected to take another 2 years, through 2024.

We made 5 recommendations to help DOD address some of these production and modernization risks. Check them out in our report.

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